Will They Make-Up or “Face/Off”?: Hollywood Production Company accuses SyFy Channel of stealing their reality show concept.
It’s a common Hollywood story: the struggling writer approaches the studio with a pitch for a great story. After 20 minutes with a studio executive, the writer’s idea is rejected. Wandering around Hollywood Boulevard some months later, the struggling writer looks up and sees a movie poster: the studio used his idea after all.
That is the premise behind a complaint filed January 25, 2013 in the Superior Court of California. In the complaint (available here), the Results Group LLC brings suit against SyFy Media Productions LLC (the SyFy Channel), which is owned by NBC Universal Media LLC, for what they allege was a classic “pitch poach.” [author’s note—“pitch” is industry slang for the—typically short—presentation given by someone with a script, concept, or other property to another person who, they want to buy into the project. “Poach” is an English word meaning “to steal” or “encroach”].
The Results Group entered into a written contract with Studio City—a television program production house—to create and develop a new reality-show series called “Face Off” that would be the “Iron Chef” of Hollywood special effects make-up artists. The two companies put together a presentation package about the show containing a detailed show synopsis, specific challenges that could be used during episodes, various graphics, and a presentation video. With their agent from William Morris Agency, the Results Group pitched the idea to two SyFy Channel executives on May 27, 2009. That’s when all the trouble started.
The Result Group gave SyFy their oral pitch along with an original copy of all the pitch materials. After the meeting, the SyFy executives told the Results Group that they would not pursue the proposed television program. Later that year, however, SyFy announced they would release a series called “Face Off,” a reality show competition between special effects make-up artists.
The Results Groups approached SyFy about the similarities. SyFy denied that they stole the Results Group’s concept, claiming that they were planning a similar show before the pitch meeting following a pitch from a third production company, Mission Control Media, Inc.
After the first few episodes aired, the Results Group became convinced that SyFy had stolen their idea, and that the story about Mission Control Media was false: the SyFy show contained the same basic concept (a female hosted reality show about make-up artists with three judges and an $100,000 prize), and similar contests during the three episodes. The Results Group filed suit.
In their complaint, the Results Group claimed they had an implied contract of confidentiality with SyFy about the pitch materials, as well as an implied contract that (1) SyFy would not use the pitch materials to develop their own series; and (2) if SyFy did want to use the materials, they would hire Studio City and the Results Group as producers, using the standard industry contract and at the standard industry rate. Because SyFy produced the show without their permission, and without hiring them as producers, the Results Group claimed a breach of these implied contracts. The Results Group also claims unfair competition.
Interestingly, the Results Group did not include a claim for copyright infringement in the complaint, even though the entire lawsuit is based on the theory that SyFy “copied” their show.
First, even though the actual pitch material is certainly a copyrightable work, and thus fits under the Copyright Act’s definition of an “original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a), the actual thing that the Results Group claimed was copied was not the pitch materials, but rather the ideas contained within. This poses a problem in copyright law, since copyright protection does not extend to any “idea … [or] concept” even if it is embodied in the copyrightable work. 17 U.S.C. § 102(b). Thus, the Results Group would not actually have an infringement claim under copyright law, since what they claimed was “copied” cannot be protected in the first place.
Second, even if they claimed infringement for physically copying the pitch materials themselves, the amount of damages available would be so small, this claim would not be worth pursuing: the value of the materials derives not from the actual copies, but from the show produced as a result of those materials.
Consequently, those who believe they have fallen victim to concept or idea theft tend to claim damages under the causes of action mentioned in the Results Group complaint: breach of contract (express or implied) and unfair competition. Such common law causes of action allow individuals to enforce their perceived rights in a property that statutory law, such as copyright law, fails to protect.